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Myanmar, no longer closed, still complicated

It’s hard to explain just how much Myanmar has changed. It’s at least as hard to know whether to believe in all the changes Myanmar has made.

Thankfully, there are few truly despotic societies in the world, but Myanmar was one of them from 1962 until quite recently, ruled by a military junta with a horrific record on human rights. The nation’s media was heavily state controlled, with a policy of pre-publication censorship that turned domestic media into an organ for state propaganda. It was difficult or impossible for international media to report critically on the country, and events in the nation were often wholly invisible to the rest of the world. When Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, killing over 200,000 people in the Irrawaddy delta, the military government released no information on the crisis for days afterwards and is reported to have obstructed UN relief efforts out of fears relief workers would act as spies. If there were an Olympics for closed societies, Myanmar would have been a steady contender for the silver, behind perennial champion North Korea, but duking it out with Eritrea, Turkmenistan and heavyweight Iran.

That’s all changing, and rapidly. In late 2010, the government released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and in 2012, she and her party, the National League for Democracy stood for election and won the vast majority of vacant seats – Daw Suu now represents the constituency of Kawhmu in the lower house of parliament. Pre-press censorship has been eliminated, and strict internet controls were lifted in 2011. Long-banned dissident organizations now operate within the country, lead to a surreal situation where formerly banned publications now fight state-controlled publications for ad revenue. According to Reporters without Borders’s Press Freedom Index, the Myanmar press is a dismal 145th… but that’s up from 171 of 175 in 2009… and its current score is better than Singapore, Malaysia, China and Vietnam.

This helps explain why the East West Center decided to hold its biannual conference on media in Yangon this March, and why I jumped at the chance to speak at the event. I’d looked for excuses to travel to Myanmar before the 2007 Saffron revolution, hoping to investigate internet censorship and look for ways around the country’s firewall. (After the revolution and the crackdown that followed, I decided it was too dangerous to come to the country, not for me, but for anyone I ended up working with there.) The changes to Myanmar seemed miraculous, and I wanted to see for myself what the country was really like.

Shwedagon Pagoda at dawn

Shwedagon Pagoda at dawn

I was lucky to be able to come to Yangon for a few days before the conference to get a read on the press and telecommunications situation. I was doubly blessed that colleagues from Open Society Foundation, which has had a Burma-focused project for two decades, were around and helped introduce me to lots of interesting folks. I met tech entrepreneurs, newspaper editors, foreign correspondents and others navigating the local media environment, all of whom are trying to figure out just how open contemporary Myanmar is and what the future has in store.

Clip from 2010 New Light of Myanmar

Clip from 2010 New Light of Myanmar

The opening of the East West conference included a reminder of just how closed Myanmar’s media environment had been. One speaker showed a page from a 2010 edition of government newspaper New Light of Myanmar, which included an ad urging citizens, “Do not allow ourselves to be swayed by killer broadcasts designed to cause troubles”. (The “killer broadcasts” in question were from VOA, BBC, RFA and other media organizations attending the conference.) Another speaker introduced a source he’d interviewed decades before… inadvertently leading him to spend over sixteen years in prison.

East West Center is clearly aware that Myanmar’s press today is far from free, but has chosen to celebrate the remarkable progress made. Open Society Foundation (where I serve as a member of the global board) is doing much the same – we continue to support independent news organizations like The Irrawaddy and have supported their decisions to operate within the country, despite restrictions and threats to their freedom to publish.

Here’s some of what I learned from meeting with Myanmar journalists, activists and entrepreneurs:

- The media scene is crowded, probably too crowded. Prior to the 2012 censorship reforms, it wasn’t possible to publish a daily newspaper in Myanmar, as all stories needed to be pre-approved by the Ministry of Information. But a large ecosystem of weekly and monthly journals has been growing for years, and now there are more than 200 periodicals published. And now there are 14 licensed daily newspapers in Burmese and about half a dozen in English.

Yangon newsstand

Yangon newsstand

The rush to start daily newspapers has been economically disastrous for many of those involved. There’s simply not enough ad revenue to go around, and more than one publisher has already gone out of business. Referring to the press situation in her remarks on Sunday, Aung San Suu Kyi joked that her party wasn’t wealthy enough to start a newspaper, implying both that all papers are losing money and that papers are as much political tool as source of news.

- The internet is growing in Myanmar, but for now, it’s Facebook. About 1 million of the country’s 60 million people are online. That number is likely to change sharply as two new mobile phone operators, Telenor and Ooredoo, come into the market later this year and offer data services. People who are online are on Facebook – as an Australian entrepreneur put it, “The internet here is America Online – everyone’s on through Facebook, and they rarely leave that walled compound.” Indeed, I saw ads featuring corporate URLs and those URLs were rarely .mm sites, but more often Facebook pages. The publishers I talked to rarely had accurate traffic statistics for their websites – the unit of measurement is Facebook likes.

Guides to the Myanmar internet

Guides to the Myanmar internet

This situation is potentially disastrous for online media. They’ve got to put their content on Facebook to find an audience, but they get no benefit from the ads it generates, and it’s hard to lure audiences onto their sites to generate pageviews. The situation is likely to get worse when the mobile phone operators join the market – it’s quite possible that Facebook will negotiate for their site to be accessible without data charges, as they’ve done in other developing markets, which will badly tilt the playing field against independent website operators. This isn’t Facebook’s fault – they’re competing for dominance in a new market, as we’d expect them to. But it’s going to be a real challenge to build a web ecosystem that can support independent media, and Myanmar needs help with webhosting, design, online ad sales, etc. to get there.

- Despite exciting changes, there are serious threats to press freedom aside from economic challenges. Given the chance to question the deputy Minister of Information U Ye Htut at the conference, two foreign correspondents complained that they were receiving very brief visas to report within the country, and wondered whether their reporting had led to briefer visas. While the deputy minister assured us that the government was simply putting into place a more consistent visa policy, I conducted my own informal survey with journalists I spoke to that contradicts this. Journalists who were writing about Myanmar’s repressed Rohingya minority reported receiving two week visas, while the friendly television journalist who spent half our interview demanding I confirm that Myanmar was more open than other nations in the region received a 70 day business visa instead.

- Visas aren’t the problem for domestic journalists – prison is. Four reporters and the CEO of Unity Journal were arrested when the paper reported on an alleged chemical weapons factory in the center of the country and are still being held, despite international pressure. The reporters and publisher now face a trial for revealing state secrets. (The government denies that the facility is a chemical weapons factory… which leaves open the question of what state secret was revealed.)

- Media professionals report that they fear legal repercussions of their reports, including defamation lawsuits. Bertil Lintner, legendary historian and correspondent on Burma, noted that the country seemed to be moving from a model of explicit censorship to “the Singapore model”, where censorship happens through a system of economic and legal pressures.

Mosque in Dalah, Myanmar

Mosque in Dalah, Myanmar

- People are understandably terrified about hate speech. Virtually every conversation I had about the internet in Myanmar centered on hate speech. The fear, specifically, is of speech that will incite ethnic tensions, especially tensions between Buddhists and Muslims, including the Rohingya. This is understandable – the history of post-colonial Myanmar has been one of constant conflict between the army and ethnic minority groups. According to friends in the country, Burmese Facebook is filled with images designed to provoke these tensions, sometimes featuring the images of people raped or killed and text blaming the violence on minority groups.

As a result, virtually everyone I spoke to believed that either the government or Facebook needed to control online speech, including people who’d served substantial prison sentences for their online writings.

- People really don’t want to talk about the Rohingya. Most local media won’t use the term “Rohingya”. Instead, they refer to “Bangladeshis”, which implies that the people in question are illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh with no rights of citizenship. One of the more careful local outlets uses the term “Muslims of Bangladeshi descent, some of whom are Myanmar citizens”, which seems absurdly convoluted, until you understand that terming someone “Rohingya” is equivalent to taking sides in a very unpopular political debate over whether these 3 million people are citizens. That there have been Rohingya in Myanmar for centuries, that the country once had Rohingya members of parliament doesn’t do much to sway most people in the country, who seem largely untroubled by a decision not to allow Rohingya to identify their ethnicity on an upcoming census. When I raised this issue with local journalists, I got a great deal of pushback, including speculation that “Rohingya” was a term popularized by international media and not native to the country.

Commuter boat in Yangon

Commuter boat in Yangon

All these conversations left me with an interesting challenge as a keynote speaker. I wanted to acknowledge the complexities of Myanmar’s media environment, while also acknowledging how far the country had come. Below, I offer my notes for the speech – what I ended up delivering was somewhat different, as I ended up shortening to fit into the time allotted. The organizers gave me a title I wouldn’t have chosen – “Civic Media’s Challenges and Opportunities”. It’s fairly far from what I would normally talk about, but I wanted to open conversations about how Myanmar might approach the opportunities offered by participatory media and how the country might protect the openings it has made for online speech.

Students from the University of Missouri covered my talk here.


It’s an honor and a privilege to be with you today. This is an incredibly exciting moment for Myanmar. Your country has experienced so many exciting developments in a very short period of time. This conference on the Challenges of a Free Press is a timely one given changes made in August 2012 to allow reporters to publish stories without ministry review. That development followed very encouraging changes to internet policy in September 2011, which made previously inaccessible international news sites and social media platforms available to the people of Myanmar. We have seen a wave of young people in Myanmar joining Facebook, leading to stronger connections between people in Myanmar and Burmese people in the diaspora.

We know that the future of the internet is tightly connected to phones and mobile devices, and Myanmar is moving to make mobile phones affordable and accessible to all people through sharply reducing the price of SIM cards and now through issuing licenses to Oreedoo and Telenor, which are promising inexpensive mobile service in the country’s major cities this year.

We can see the incredible interest in being on the internet every time there is a conference on the internet in Yangon or Mandalay, like BarCamp Yangon, which has been widely attended every time it has been held. This is an exciting moment and I’m honored by the opportunity to visit Myanmar as these changes are taking place.

Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about the Myanmar press on Sunday and characterized the press in Myanmar as somewhat open. That’s correct. It’s laudable that Myanmar has taken steps to open the internet and end pre-publication censorship, but concerning that other forms of censorship are taking place. As has been raised today, restrictions on visas for journalists are concerning, as are the arrests of reporters at the Unity Journal. And in speaking to people about the rise of the internet, I hear a great deal of enthusiasm to put some controls on the internet back in place to cope with a troubling trend of extreme speech.

It’s understandable that Myanmar is wrestling with these challenges about openness. Myanmar is experiencing changes associated with the internet in a matter of months rather than a matter of years. My country has had twenty years to get used to the internet and the changes it brings about. Over those two decades, my country and others have had heated debates about the benefits and costs of the internet. Given how easy it is to copy and share music, books and movies with the internet, what are the rights and protections for artists, authors and filmmakers, and for readers and viewers? Is the internet dangerous because it puts us in contact with strangers from all over the world or is a powerfully positive force for peace and understanding, for exactly the same reason? Will the internet create new businesses like Google or Amazon that lead to opportunity and wealth, or will it destroy old businesses like stores and newspapers?

I’m interested in all these debates – and very interested to see how they play out in Myanmar – but I am most interested in the question of how the internet may change what it means to be a citizen. There have been great hopes for the internet and democracy, the idea that governments can listen to people’s wants and needs more directly, that citizens might vote directly on legislation or help draft new laws, that we might have robust debates in a digital pubic sphere where it’s possible for everyone to express their opinions. There are also great fears: that the internet gives us distraction instead of dialog, that we are more likely to use this new technology to entertain ourselves than to engage in debate and discourse. It’s possible that the internet may make it easy to surround yourself only with opinions you agree with and to ignore other important voices, or may provide a platform for hate speech. Some worry that the internet may make it easier for people to take to the streets and protest against a government – others argue that this is a good thing, not a bad thing – and yet others argue that it’s a mistake to either blame or credit the internet for protests we’ve seen in Ukraine, Egypt, Tunisia, or in Europe and the United States.

The center I direct at MIT studies these questions through the lens of “civic media”. Civic media is digital media used for public purposes, like participating in political conversations or social movements. It uses many of the same tools as social media, like Facebook or Twitter, but the aims are different. Social media is mostly about staying in touch with your friends. Civic media is about trying to improve your community or work for social change, and while it often starts by talking about ideas with friends, it’s also about influencing governments or large groups of people.

Civic media is participatory media – even newspapers and television stations are discovering that they cannot simply deliver information to their audiences. The audience expects to be able to talk back, to share news stories they want to see covered, to offer their interpretation and opinions. Media that doesn’t enable participation is likely to be criticized or ignored – when CNN in Turkey did not cover protests happening in Gezi Square, millions of ordinary Turks, not just protesters, turned to Twitter to talk about events in the square and to mock CNN and other stations for failing to cover the story. News organizations are learning how to use social media well and are turning into civic media outlets – newspapers like The Guardian in the UK and television channels like Al Jazeera work hard to invite public participation and blur the lines between old media and new.

Because civic media uses the tools of social media, it is both personalized and personal. I get some of my news each day from a newspaper, but much of my news from the thousand people I follow on Twitter. You’ll hear tomorrow from Jillian York, an internet freedom activist and an expert on the internet in the Middle East and North Africa – I follow her on Twitter so that I get her recommendations on what I should read to understand social movements in Tunisia. This means I get news personalized to my interests – I am interested in Tunisia and what Jillian thinks about Tunisia – and personal, in the sense that I pay more attention to news my friends think is important.

This has an important consequence – my picture of the world is going to be different than yours, because we are each seeing a personalized picture of the world. This has some complicated implications for democracy. If I am only reading about Tunisia, and you are only reading about Ukraine, how do we have a conversation about important issues? It is possible we may be facing a future where it is difficult to have conversations about important public issues because we don’t have the same knowledge. We are slowly learning how to navigate this new world, to seek out opinions and perspectives we may not agree with so that we have a broader view of the world, but it’s difficult, both in terms of time and temperament. There is so much information available online, and so much that we agree with politically that it can be very hard work to pay attention to ideas we disagree with.

I study civic media because media is one of the most powerful forces in an open society. Even when media doesn’t tell us what to think, it tells us what to think about, what issues are most important for us to discuss and debate as a society. It monitors powerful institutions – governments and businesses – and can draw attention to corruption and wrongdoing. And civic media can help us come together and do remarkable things. We’ve seen hundreds of thousands of volunteers work together to build a free encyclopedia, Wikipedia, that’s vastly more comprehensive than any previous book and accessible to people even in very poor nations. Tools like Kickstarter are making it possible to “crowdfund” projects, raising money to that people in a city like Detroit can convert a vacant lot into a public garden, or colleagues of mine in Kenya can build a new device that provides internet connectivity when you’re hundreds of kilometers from a city.

I hope that the internet is opening a space for debate and participation that is more open, more fair and more inclusive than offline spaces. I hope that people who have been excluded from civic conversations in the past due to their gender, race, background or economic status will be able to participate in this new space and that their contributions will be embraced. I hope that civic media will be a space where groups that sometimes do not talk in person, like the Rohingya and the Baman, can interact. But I am deeply conscious of the challenges we face in the space of civic media, challenges of verifying information online, of coping with extreme speech and with finding common ground for civic conversations between people who have very different points of view.

Here are some lessons that have been learned about civic media, both in my lab and by researchers around the world, which I share in hopes that they may inform debates and conversations in Myanmar over the next few exciting years:

- Everyone can speak online, but it’s very hard to be heard.

Social media invites us to speak all the time – when we post an update to Facebook or Twitter, we are speaking to our circles of friends, and potentially to anyone else online. And while we’re likely to be heard by people who already are interested in hearing what we have to say, there’s no guarantee we will be heard by a broader audience. Because everyone can speak, media is an ongoing competition for attention: if we want our concerns to be heard, we are competing against everyone else, including professional news organizations, celebrities, politicians, other citizens.

This leads to a phenomenon people call “the long tail” – a small number of people have very large audiences, while most of us have small audiences most of the time. What’s so surprising and unpredictable is that this circumstance can change very quickly – a comment you made to friends could be amplified and spread to a huge audience if it was particularly insightful, funny or controversial. That experience can be very disconcerting, as if you were having a conversation with friends and you suddenly found yourself on this stage, with a microphone, speaking to a large audience. Surprising, but also very powerful, which is why people work to understand how social media works and how they might get their ideas heard by a wide audience.

- The internet is powerful for mobilization, but most mobilizations fail.

We’ve all heard how protesters in Tunisia used Facebook to document their frustrations with the Ben Ali government and let international media know about their protests, how Turks used Twitter to call people into Gezi Park. We know about these uses of media for mobilization because they were successful. We don’t hear about the thousands of efforts that fail. The US government has invited people to petition the government, circulating questions or demands online that the government is required to respond to if sufficient numbers of people sign the petition. (The number was 25,000 and has risen – it now takes 100,000 to be guaranteed a response.) Early last year, the number of petitions submitted was over 150,000. Only 162 had received a response. That’s because the average petition received 65 signatures. Over 100,000 people tried to start a political conversation, and well over 99% failed. Just because people use the internet doesn’t mean they will find an audience for their ideas.

- Mobilization works when an idea is popular and when people use the right techniques

I have been deeply interested in the campaigns for a 5000 kyat SIM card for Myanmar – we have seen evidence of this campaign all over Facebook and it’s been well documented in US and European media as evidence of the deep interest people in Myanmar have to connect with one another and with the wider world. I think the campaign was so successful because it expressed a concern that many people in Myanmar had, that it invited other people to participate in the campaign and personalize it for their audiences, and because it used humor more than anger to make its point.

We are writing a case study on the campaign at MIT and reviewing some of the cartoons involved: I remember a cartoon of an elderly man on his deathbed. The nurse asked if he was waiting for his family to visit before he died, and the man explained that he was waiting for a 5000 kyat SIM card. It’s likely that many people posted that cartoon to Facebook and forwarded it to friends both because they agreed with the cause and because they found it funny. Because civic media is all about reaching an audience, campaigns that figure out how to make themselves replicable are the ones that are the most powerful.

- It’s hard to get heard online, but being censored almost guarantees an audience.

Trying to silence speech online tends to make it louder. This is something we call “the Streisand Effect”. It’s named after the singer Barbara Streisand, because she made a very foolish error in trying to remove content from the internet. A photographer posted images of every house on the coastline of the state of California to document the condition of beaches and the dangers of erosion. One of those houses belonged to Streisand and she sued the photographer to have the photo of her house removed. Very few people had looked at the photo of Streisand’s house, but once people heard about the lawsuit, everyone wanted to see the pictures. There’s nothing as appealing as a secret.

In the Soviet Union, when the press was heavily controlled, there was an incredible market for underground publications – samizdat. And old joke holds that a mother tried to get her son to do his schoolwork by having an underground printer print his textbooks as samizdat. Social media makes the internet incredibly hard to censor, because the tools of social media are optimized for sharing media – censor it in one place and people will share it in other places. Nations like China have put hundreds of millions of dollars into trying to censor social media and, ultimately, they have failed. When major news events like the train crash in Wenzhou take place, people use social media to spread the information and even with tens of thousands of online monitors, information that was embarrassing to the government was released. This is very disconcerting and uncomfortable for governments, but it is simply the reality of how these new systems work.

It’s true that censorship and democracy are incompatible, as some in the Myanmar government have wisely observed. But civic media and censorship are also incompatible, and the spread of social media tools are starting to make it difficult for governments to censor, even if they wanted to.

- Censorship is the wrong way to deal with hate speech

I know that people in this audience are legitimately concerned with extreme and hateful speech online. This is a problem in many nations – China is facing problems with hate speech against a Uighir minority after a recent terror attack. My country faced terrible problems of hate speech against our Muslim population after the 9/11 attacks, and I know Myanmar is facing problems with hate speech aimed at the Rohingya population. I want to share a story from Kenya that illustrates the problem and offers a possible solution.

Kenya had a badly disputed election on 2007 and experienced a wave of political violence in its wake. I was involved with forming an internet company called Ushahidi that tried to document that violence – my colleagues built a tool that let people send a message from a mobile phone and have it appear on a map so we could understand what parts of the country were violent and which were peaceful, and where people needed aid and assistance. This idea of building a map through the participation of thousands of people has become popular and is now called “crowdmapping”. We used crowdmapping to document Kenya’s elections in 2013, hoping that this election cycle would be peaceful, but resolving to document any evidence we found of intimidation, hate or violence.

Part of this was a project called “Umati”, which is the Swahili word for “crowd”. Umati volunteers monitored Kenyan social media – blogs, Twitter and Facebook – and reported cases of hate speech leading up to and following the election. These instances were posted for the public on a highly visible map – in other words, rather than silencing the speech, the project sought to shame those engaged in hate speech. It worked. Those operating the project quickly discovered a pattern called “cutting” – when someone posted hateful speech, their friends would react negatively and cut off contact with them. This was especially common on Twitter, where everyone can read what you write. Hate speech persisted much longer on Facebook, because speech was often only visible to a small number of people and there wasn’t as much shaming. Exposure and shaming worked, and we also learned something very surprising – there was no strong correlation between hate speech and acts of violence in the 2013 Kenyan elections. Hate speech is ugly and offensive, and some speech may be dangerous. But speech is less powerful than we often believe, and pressure from our friends and family through making speech visible is more powerful than we generally think.

- You can’t legislate truthful speech.

It’s reasonable to worry that misinformation can and will spread online. A year ago, a few kilometers from my lab, two terrorists set of bombs at the finish line of the Boston marathon, injuring and killing dozens of people. Later, 100 meters from my office, the two attackers shot an MIT police officer, Sean Collier. I was in Dakar, Senegal at the time and I was following events online to understand whether my friends, family and students were safe. There were floods of information online, and most of that information was wrong. It wasn’t just amateurs who got the story wrong – one of New York City’s largest newspapers, the Post, falsely accused two men of the murder on the front page of their paper.

Participatory media isn’t the cause of misinformation online – speed is. When news happens, everyone wants to know, and wants to know now. News organizations compete to be the first to report a story. The result is that people report speculation and theory as well as truth. This isn’t because they have malicious intentions – it’s because people have conversations about what’s going on in the world, and these days, these conversations are hard to distinguish from news. It’s a very fine line between writing “I saw the attackers on the MIT campus” and “I heard that the attackers were on the MIT campus”, and both can and will be said online.

The solution is not to force everyone to slow down – it’s to learn how to read differently. When the internet was introduced, there was a tendency to believe that if someone was online, it must be true, because someone had reviewed and verified it. We all understand now that there’s no guarantee that something is true just because it is online. We are slowly learning to be skeptical about reports from people who are anonymous, to take reports more seriously if someone has been writing online for a long time, to understand that reports made immediately after an event are likely to be wrong and to be revised later. It takes a long time to learn how to read differently, but this is a valuable skill not just for the internet, but for all writing – I teach my students to ask who is writing a story, how they’ve obtained their information and what agenda they are supporting, and those are critical questions to ask of all media, whether it is produced by professional reporters or by amateur bloggers.

I realize that the picture I am painting of Civic Media is a complicated one – it’s a space that is both promising and challenging at the same time. I want to leave you with two ideas, one which I find promising, and one which I find challenging, in the hopes that you might help me become wiser about these questions.

The first idea is that the internet is helping citizens become monitors. In Kenya, citizens now monitor elections, reporting irregularities at poling stations or stolen ballots by using their mobile phones. In Brazil, I am working with citizens in Sao Paulo who are monitoring the mayor’s office, reporting whether he is keeping the promises he made when he was elected, documenting where streets aren’t paved or streetlights haven’t been installed. The rise of citizens as monitors is going to change the balance of power between citizens and their leaders, and I predict it’s going to be a change for the better. But I also predict it’s going to be very unsettling and disconcerting for many years to come. Whistleblowing is an extreme example of monitorial citizenship – what Edward Snowden did in revealing that the US National Security Agency was spying on Americans and non-Americans and lying to our lawmakers about it, is a very important form of monitoring, and I believe Snowden should be celebrated, not prosecuted. But I think monitoring will be just as important when millions of citizens are monitoring everyday government actions in cooperation with governments, not only in opposition. The big lesson we’re learning in Sao Paulo is that citizens often don’t know the good things their governments are doing until they monitor the government.

The second idea is that we need to work hard to ensure that our conversations online aren’t always local ones. It’s damaging for a democracy if we only listen to people we agree with – we need to hear a diverse range of opinions to have a healthy debate about the future of our communities, locally and at a national level. But some of the most important conversations we need to have today on subjects like climate change have to take place at a global level. It’s deeply exciting to me that Myanmar is entering into this global conversation online, but we will need to work hard to make sure the world listens to Myanmar and to help Myanmar listen to the rest of the world. People who can act as bridges between Myanmar and the rest of the world, particularly people who’ve worked and studied abroad, will be key figures in ensuring that Myanmar uses the internet to engage globally, not just locally. And people around the world want to help start this conversation – please take a look at a project called Global Voices that I’ve been lucky to be involved with for ten years. 1600 people, mostly volunteers, work to share stories from all over the world in more than 30 languages. We have some excellent reporting from Myanmar – that’s how I know about all the exciting changes happening on the local internet – but we could use more help.

Thanks so much for listening to me and I look forward to a conversation about these ideas, today and in the days to come.

Praying at Shwedagon Pagoda

Praying at Shwedagon Pagoda


“Audio Never Goes Viral”… and maybe that’s a good thing

Stan Alcorn, a producer for WNYC (one of the leading lights of public radio in the US), has an excellent essay on Digg.com titled “Why Audio Never Goes Viral”.

The title comes from a post on Transom.org, the community newspaper of the Amerian public radio community, by Nate DiMeo. DiMeo is a brilliant freelance producer and the creator of “The Memory Palace”, a beautiful and bittersweet podcast about history and storytelling. At the end of an essay about the podcast and the financial struggles to support it, DiMeo offers this observation:

Audio never goes viral.

There’s something much more intentional about choosing to listen to something than choosing to click on a video or article. If you posted the most incredible story—literally, the most incredible story that has ever been told since people have had the ability to tell stories, it will never, ever get as many hits as a video of a cat with a moustache.”

You can tell how maddening this is for DiMeo and for many other people creating innovative and important audio. We are in the midst of a moment of extreme creativity in the world of audio production. Podcasting has made it reasonably easy for a competent producer to share original audio with an audience of potentially millions, but generally, dozens, of listeners. Some of these podcasts are finding audiences on public radio through new distributors, like the Public Radio Exchange. But many aren’t. And while there are numerous stories of people who’ve become briefly, sometimes uncomfortably, famous through viral videos (a conference, ROFLCon, exists solely to examine the phenomenon of internet famous), there are very few examples of internet memes that are audio-only.

Alcorn examines this phenomenon structurally, considering the weaknesses in the audio ecosystem that make audio less likely to spread online than text or video. Audio is often something we encounter when we’re doing something else – driving, walking, working with our hands, cooking dinner. As a result, we’re less likely to remember to share that experience online. When we do share, we’re thwarted by the fact that audio is difficult to embed, tied up in different proprietary players. Unlike text, audio is hard to skim. And the “tastemakers” who are in the business of amplifying viral content don’t have a good source for potentially viral audio to audition and spread.

All these are good points. But I wonder if Alcorn and DiMeo are limiting the conversation by focusing on “going viral”. For DiMeo, the failure of audio to go viral is part of a larger phenomenon, that high-quality audio storytelling doesn’t receive the audience it deserves and that the small size of the audience means that it’s exceedingly hard to make a living. DiMeo, in his Transom piece, explains that he’s had book offers that didn’t pan out because he is insufficiently famous – “going viral”, which is a form of unexpected (and sometimes unwanted) fame is something that would be deeply helpful to his career.

But “going viral” is a phenomenon built on passing on content that requires little investment by the viewer. It takes a few seconds to realize that something interesting is going on in the “Harlem Shake”, and if that’s your thing, you might spend a few minutes more finding different versions of the video, perhaps going further to read critiques of the video or the appropriation of the song and dance. But the whole experience is no more than a glance.

Glance-based media is perfect for a world where we’re inundated with choices and forced to make up our mind very quickly. But, as Alcorn argues, it’s hard to glance at audio – by its very definition, audio takes time.

But that may be why audio is so important in a viral age.

The first assignment I ask my students in News and Participatory Media to complete is a media diary, tracking everything they read, watch and listen to over the course of a week. It’s a helpful assignment, shocking the career journalists into the realization that most college students never read print media. I ask students to track not only what mediums they encounter, but what kinds of stories, and to think about whether they were following up on existing interests or learning about new topics.

What’s been most surprising to me is that many participants list radio or podcasts where they get the most international news, and where they get the most unexpected and surprising news over the course of the week. Often, this is because people are listening when they’re doing other tasks. While DiMeo is concerned that it’s harder to get audiences to choose to listen rather than choose to watch or read, I’m seeing evidence that audio is most powerful when choice is not involved.

If you’re working with your hands or driving, there’s a high switching cost involved with being selective about radio or podcast programming – I have to be really uninterested in an NPR story to start searching around the airwaves for an alternative when I’m driving. As a result, I listen to far more stories on subjects I have no explicit interest in on the radio, and often, I discover that I’m interested in a topic I previously knew nothing about.

Radio is a serendipity engine precisely because it downplays choice. Had I turned off Morning Edition when I got bored with a story about the US auto industry, I never would have heard the story about the Ukranian protests that I hadn’t known I was interested in. Viral videos work because I choose to watch and choose to forward – radio works because I don’t choose, and because I’m rewarded for my lack of choice.

When I wrote about serendipity in Rewire, my friend David Weinberger wondered whether serendipity was simply a function of good writing: you end up reading lots of articles on topics you’re not explicitly interested in when you read The New Yorker or Granta. You’ve made the choice of the publication, but not of the content, and you’re along for the ride based on the quality of the writing. I think podcasts are like that – I frequently have no interest in the topics Roman Mars explores on 99% Invisible, but I value his storytelling, and I’m along for the ride.

I don’t think Nate DiMeo wants to be viral – I think he wants to be heard. There’s a need for media that creates serendipity, even if that need isn’t well understood and is far from well met by the market. Alcorn is right that we need to consider the environment for sharing audio, but I think we’d benefit from examining the ways people share long-form readings, a closer analogy to podcasts in the great battle for attention. Audio content would benefit greatly from Instapaper’s “read later” functionality, and from a Longreads that compiled great stories from live radio and podcasts for those who’ve got time to explore.

We need to find better ways of supporting long form media, media that encourages serendipity, media that asks that you give up some choice in exchange for unexpected discovery. We need ways for producers like DiMeo to find audiences who can support their work. But I would hate to see audio producers give up what they do well in search of virality. At its best, audio has a way of blindsiding you, of helping you discover that you are deeply invested in a story you thought you were only half listening to, of changing your life in a small, subtle way by introducing a stray and unexpected thought.

I read Alcorn’s piece in a burger joint in Portsmouth, New Hampshire last night, on Instapaper, on my phone. Walking back to the hotel, I decided to catch up on Nate DiMeo’s work on The Memory Palace and turned to an old episode on my phone, “Heard Once”. I’d heard it once before, but again, walking by the water with the wind whipping my scarf around, I was blindsided again. It’s a story about Jenny Lind, a musician I have never given more than a moment’s thought to, but the story is about so much more.

It’s eight minutes. It may never go viral, but it’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard. Please listen and see if it changes your life in a small way.


Jen Pahlka and Clay Shirky at Code for America Summit

I’m at Code for America’s 2013 summit in San Francisco today, an impressive gathering put together by an extremely impressive civic innovation organization. I’m one of the advisors to Code for All, a sister project to Code for America led by Catherine Bracy, old friend from the Berkman Center, and was able to meet the first Code for All partners from Jamaica, Germany and Mexico at CfA’s amazing headquarters yesterday.

Code for America has done something pretty astounding. They’ve found a way to bring geeks into local governments to build innovative new projects in a way that’s fiscally sustainable. They’ve got support from the governments who host these geeks and from the central players in the US tech economy, and they’ve emerged as a central organizing node for the government innovation community.

Jen Pahlka, the founder of Code for America, opens her remarks with the classic Margaret Mead “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world” quote, and admits that she never got her degree in anthropology because the classes were too early in the morning. She notes that many people working on civic change feel like they are a small group, though we’re able to come together into a movement today. She hopes that this isn’t a movement of sameness, but of diversity, which sometimes creates conflict and chaos. When we come together, we get new applications and APIs, but more importantly, we get a community and a common mission.

The common beliefs of this group include the idea that government can work of the people, by the people and for the people, even in the 21st century. We have in common the idea that we can do things better together. Code for America welcomes anyone who has these values, and – and here she emphasizes her words very carefully – are doing something. Code for America is a reaction to Tim O’Reilly’s injunction to the tech industry to “work on stuff that matters”. CfA, she tells us, works on the stuff that matters the most.

Jen is supposed to be working as deputy CTO under Todd Park in the White House on a yearlong break from the organization… though she’s on furlough at the moment. She explains her decision to move into government for a year by explaining how inspired she is by people working in government. “In order to honor all of you – all the public servants in government and the fellows to work with them – I felt like I could not pass up this experience.”

Answering the inevitable question: “How’s it going in DC?”, she answers that it’s both deeply rewarding and the hardest thing she’s ever done, including starting Code for America. She offers warm thanks to Bob Sofman and Abhi Nemani who’ve been leading the organization during her year off.


Clay Shirky start his talk at the Code for America summit with some internet history:

Larry Sanger is an epistemologist, hired into one of the few epistemology jobs, working on Nupedia, a new encyclopedia working with experts to build a carefully fact-checked new encyclopedia. Nine months into Nupedia, they’ve created about a dozen articles. Sanger realizes this isn’t working and goes to Jimmy Wales, the guy who hired him, and suggests using Ward Cunningham’s wiki software. Wikipedia is born and the rest is history – in weeks, it outpaces Nupedia and Nupedia rapidly shuts down.

Patrick McConlogue, a New York city entrepreneur who works at Kickass Capital, caught sight of a homeless guy on the streets of New York and proposes teaching him to program as a way of addressing the problem of “the unjustly homeless”. McConlogue never bothered to learn the homeless guy’s name, and the details of the story led to ferocious online criticism of McConlogue’s plans to teach a homeless man to program. In the criticism of McConlogue, Shirky was struck by the idea that tech startups encourage thinking that doesn’t consider limitations and constraints, which might be appropriate for the tech industry, but doesn’t work well in the social change space.

This sounded wrong to Shirky, who started re-reading the comments through this lens, looking both at the criticisms of McConlogue’s idea and the voluminous criticism of Leo, the homeless guy, for being homeless. Matt Yglesias was similarly skeptical, but looked at possible solutions: how do we address homelessness, which begins with looking for ways to create affordable housing. Clay draws a distinction between this sort of helpful criticism – which was very harsh to McConlogue’s approach, but ultimately helpful – and corrosive criticism, which doesn’t make you smarter but just tries to get you to stop looking at the problem.

Clay notes that he’s lived through two sorting out times: the question of whether the web would be important, and questions of whether social media would spread. In these periods of sorting out, technology looks like a solution in search of a problem, because at that point it is. Over time, we find answers to the question – will it work? will it scale – and it ultimately does. Clay suggests that we’re now at that point with civic media. We need to listen to the helpful critics, and we need to stop listening to the corrosive ones so we can keep moving forward.

“If you want to feel like a genius, go to a place where people are doing something new and predict that they’ll fail. You’ll almost always get it right. It’s a cheap high.” There’s a great deal of space between “nothing will work” and “almost nothing will work”. The easiest problems to take on, Clay tells us, are pure technical problems where you just need information. It’s not an accident that applications to report potholes are the great success story in this space – there’s no pothole lobby. Potholes are projects and they have solutions.

One step up from technical problems are managerial problems. In starting a bike sharing program in New York, the organizers posted a map and asked people to request bike stations. The resulting map, where everyone requested a station outside their homes, was a rhetorical document that helped build support for the program. Managerial problems don’t just solve technical problems – they have to do with building support and constituencies for solutions. And then there are political problems.

It is not possible to imagine a city without prostitutes, Clay tells us. People don’t agree what the goal is when they address prostitution. Some people want sex work to stop and some people want it to be a better job. At the political level, you’re not dealing with problems – you’re dealing with dilemmas and you only have tradeoffs, not solutions.

When people want to distract you, Clay tells us, they tell you the problem you’re working on is not the real problem. “Don’t work on potholes – work on traffic flow citywide.” Work at that scale and you’ll get criticized for not working on something concrete and achievable because you can always find a way to criticize a project’s scale.

Clay urges us to understand that the most important resource we’ve got is our own ability to change our minds. As he got on the plane to come to San Francisco, he learned that Leo, the homeless guy with the javascript books, got arrested for sleeping in the park. McConlogue saw that Leo had been arrested and has tried to bail them out of jail. Clay argues that McConlogue has turned from someone who characterizes people as “justly homeless” to someone who tries to bail a homeless man out of jail. Whether or not he will end up being a fairy godfather to Leo, or forgetting about this project soon, McConlogue would not have learned what he’s learned without starting with the wrong idea and testing it in the world.

The possibility of learning as you go is the potential of the people in this room, Clay tells us. We can’t find major solutions by planning better or by starting an endless series of unconferences and hackathons: hackathons don’t produce running code, but better understanding of problems and better social capital. In the internet community, we’ve all thought through Nupedia and we think we understand how it ground to a halt through bureaucracy. But many of us fail to understand that the people who made Nupedia fail were the people who make Wikipedia succeed, the same folks who’d been building Nupedia. Wikipedia was a plan B.

When you build a prototype, you’re building up your understanding of the process. When you build a prototype, you’re not solving the client’s problem – you’re often showing show the client that they don’t understand the problem, as people often don’t tell you what they need until you can show them something that is concretely wrong. If we can commit to working on problems before discovering at first that we’re wrong, we can take on the most challenging problems that face us.


Saving the News with Advocacy Journalism: ten minutes with the Nieman Foundation

It’s the 75th anniversary of the Nieman Foundation, and the Harvard-based program is bringing back generations of its fellows, mid-career journalists brought to Cambridge to study for a year, back to honor and celebrate the institution. One of the events on the program is the “Ninety Minute Nieman”, where organizers have invited a set of Cambridge-based professors to offer a taste of what happens in their classes in 10 minutes each. (7 professors, 10 minute lectures + the inevitable shuffling of papers = a 90 minute Nieman.)

I’m lucky enough to be one of those presenters. My friends at Nieman encouraged me to be provocative, as that’s the role I seem to have every year when I come and talk to new Nieman fellows. As someone with no experience in conventional newsrooms (save the summer I was the sports reporter for the Lewisboro Ledger at age 16) and as the co-founder of a global citizen media project, I tend to embody the anxieties and fears some mid-career journalists hold when they spend a year considering the future of their profession.

So why fight it? I decided to use my time on stage to make an argument I passionately believe: that journalism needs to help people be effective and engaged civic actors, and if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t expect to survive financially or in terms of influence. In the event that I’m struck by a flying shoe thrown by a journalist or editor in the audience and laid low, I’ve posted the text of what I hope to say.


I teach a class at MIT’s Media Lab called “News and Participatory Media” that’s become popular with Nieman scholars. I designed it as a class for engineers and software developers – the sorts of folks we expect to find at the Media Lab – with the goal of exposing them to different reporting problems so they understand some of the challenges journalists face, before working to build new tools for use in traditional and non-traditional newsrooms. Nieman fellows find it interesting, I think, because it exposes them both to different ways to think about reporting, and to students who think about news very differently. This leads to some interesting collaborations: a business reporter for one of Nigeria’s most prominent newspapers sought out one of my doctoral students for help scraping UK property databases to identify assets owned by kleptocratic Nigerian governors. We have a pretty good time.

Because the class includes reporters, who tend to be very passionate about the future of journalism, and geeks, who tend to be very passionate about social media and pretty skeptical about the current state of journalism, we have some interesting arguments over the course of a semester. I enjoy stoking these arguments, so I often bring in provocations to get us started. Which led me to bring in a remarkable column from Swiss novelist Rolf Dobelli.

Dobelli was pitching a new book, “The Art of Thinking Clearly” – which purports to use neuroscientific and cognitive science research to explain why it’s so hard to think clearly, and thinking as clearly as I can muster, I can’t recommend the book. But there’s one section, which was excerpted in The Guardian, titled “News is Bad for You” that’s a very worthwhile read. Dobelli claims that he gave up reading news four years ago and is a happier man for it: he describes news as a drug, a time-wasting habit that gives us the brief sense that we’re doing something productive and positive, but actually breaks our focus and distracts us while failing to explain the world in deep and meaningful ways or give us anything we, as readers, can do about what we read.

I figured this would spark a great conversation in our class: who would rise to defend the importance of staying informed in order to be an effective civic actor? To my great surprise, most of the class – the hacks and the hackers – were in agreement that Dobelli was more right than wrong. In part, this is because we all agreed that there’s a lot of badly written news out there – news that provides little background or context – and several of Dobelli’s critiques call out decontextualized, shallow. But the idea that had the most resonance for the class, and for me, was this: news is seldom connected to decisions we have to make as individuals, and that consuming news about situations we can’t influence will ultimately instill a sense of learned helplessness.

This is a particularly tricky argument for me, as my schtick for the past decade has been to argue that Americans need more information about the rest of the world. I just wrote a book that makes the case that we should rewire both news and social media to help us get a more cosmopolitan view of the world, so we can find connection and inspiration and solve global problems. But Dobelli has a point: the stories I’ve been trying to get Americans to pay attention to through Global Voices – repression and rebellion in Sudan, revolution in Tunisia, the rise of an African middle class – aren’t stories where readers have much agency. And part of the reason it’s so damned hard to get people to pay attention to events and voices that are geographically far away is that people rightly ask, “Why does this matter to me? Is this going to change how I work? How I shop? Even how I vote?” And the answer is, “probably not”.

I thought of Dobelli’s questions this summer, when I read Michael Schudson’s book, The Good Citizen. Schudson argues that the expectation for what a good citizen of America does has changed as our country has changed. In the post-independence period, the good citizen elected voted to elect the worthiest members of society to represent them – it was democracy by assent, largely noncompetitive. In the 19th century, good citizens were members of political parties not because of ideology, but largely because of personal and professional ties, and those parties, while competitive, competed on personality and organization, not on issues

Citizenship as many of us think about it is a product of the progressive era, Schudson argues. To overcome the party machines, progressives promoted the model of the informed citizen model, where muckraking newspapers uncovered malfeasance, where newspapers and magazines informed citizens on the issues of the day, where informed voters didn’t just elect representatives but voted directly on legislation through the ballot initiative process.

Schudson has at least two issues with the model of the informed citizen – he thinks it’s aspirational at best and farcical at worst, and he thinks its time passed somewhere around the 1960s. It’s impossible for a citizen to be informed on the range of issues that affect society – here he’s echoing some of Walter Lippman’s concerns from “Public Opinion” – and that’s not how the vast majority of us vote. And, he argues, since the 1960s, civic engagement that’s focused on making lasting change has focused on the courts, not on the ballot box – we’ve got a model of citizenship where lawsuits to establish rights and regulatory agencies that protect them are where much of the work of citizenship gets done

What I find helpful about Schudson’s argument is not his vision of rights-based citizenship, but the idea that the shape of citizenship can change over time. I think we’re experiencing one of those changes – I think we’re seeing a new form of civics that focuses on agency, on participation, and on trying to make an impact even at a very small scale.

It’s a version of citizenship that’s suspicious of opaque systems and institutions and is highly focused on seeing where effort and money goes – think of Kiva, which encourages people to loan money directly to developing world entrepreneurs, or Donors Choose, where people give to specific schools in need. Think of crowdfunding, where people support individual pieces of art they want to see made, rather than supporting arts institutions. Think of people who are politically engaged in campaigns on single issues – to arrest George Zimmerman or Joseph Kony – rather than to elect a party or a person. This is a version of citizenship that’s highly personal, highly decentralized, pointillist rather that sweeping in scope. It’s a vision of citizenship consistent with the changes we’ve seen with media, where everyone is creating media, whether it’s a Facebook update for friends or a blogpost that acts as an oped.

And just as we’ve discovered how difficult it is to navigate news and media in this space – how do we triangulate reports on Twitter and Facebook and government statements in a crisis like the Westgate mall attacks, especially when it turns out that official government sources are often less accurate than citizen sources – we’re discovering that it’s really hard to navigate this civic space. When tens of millions of American teens suddenly start demanding that the US put military forces in Uganda to arrest a warlord in the Central Africa Republic, do we treat this as a teen fad or as a serious policy concern? Do we use this as a chance to bring Ugandan voices into the dialog, or do we focus on the personal story of Jason Russell and his nervous breakdown? The KONY 2012 campaign gained an enormous amount of attention and, for a few weeks, shifted public debate – we need help figuring out whether it had impact, a question we should be asking both of campaigns that seek change by marshaling attention, and of journalism as a whole: what’s the civic impact?

This is a place where the news can help. We’re seeing a generation that’s not apathetic – they’re desperate to have impact. When we see them shying away from party politics, it’s not because they’re selfish or self-obsessed, it’s because they have a very hard time seeing how writing to their congressperson is going to change anything when congress lurches from shutdown to shutdown and passes historically few laws. People want to have impact, and the news can help.

We can help people understand where and how they can have impact. We can build on what David Bornstein is calling solutions journalism, featuring not just problems but the people and organizations trying to solve them – and we can do this in a way that probes at whether the solutions are as good as promised. We can link news stories to groups and campaigns trying to address the issues in those stories, as the Christian Science Monitor is doing in partnership with Shoutabout on their DC Decoder section. When we report on a crisis like Superstorm Sandy, we’re unafraid to drive readers to the Red Cross to help out – when my publication Global Voices reports on Kenya, we can point to ways people can help in the wake of the Westgate shooting, whether that’s to groups providing assistance to families, or to civil rights organizations now organizing to protect Kenya’s Somali population against an inevitable backlash.

What we cannot do is keep reporting news that keeps our readers informed but ineffective. There’s just too much else for them to pay attention to, whether it’s entertainment content or self-reinforcing, comfortable, partisan opinion. We’re losing the news not just because the financial models have changed, but because the civic models have changed. I doubt there’s a person in this room who got into the business for the money – everyone I know is motivated by a vision of public service. I worry that we’re failing to do public service because the way the public participates has changed. If we’re stuck in a paradigm where we inform citizens, then declare our work done, we’re failing in our public service duties.

By now, there’s any number of people in the audience waiting to ask the question, “Isn’t this advocacy journalism?” Since our forum doesn’t let you ask questions, let me go ahead and answer that for you: hell yes. And we should get used to it, because we’re all already doing advocacy journalism. Now that it’s incredibly easy to produce and disseminate information, what’s scarce is attention. Whenever we make a news judgement to put a story on our front page or deep inside our papers or sites, when we decide to cover a story in Malawi or in Mattapan, we’re doing advocacy journalism. We’re a part of a complicated ecosystem where everyone – activists promoting a cause, companies promoting a product, reporters delivering news – are competing for attention, and news organizations are very powerful actors within that system.

We’re advocating for the idea that what we’re covering is worth someone’s attention, and is worth more attention that something we’ve chosen not to cover. What Laura and Chris Amico have done with Homicide Watch is advocacy journalism at its very best – they advocate for the idea that everyone killed in DC or Chicago deserves to be reported on, whether they were black or white, rich or poor. When Godwin Nnanna reports on Nigerian governors buying mansions in Mayfair with money looted from Nigeria’s treasury, he’s committing advocacy journalism, just as he should, demanding that kleptocrats be held responsible for their crimes. When the Guardian puts Glen Greenwald on the front page, asking hard questions about government surveillance gone mad, it’s most certainly advocacy journalism and it’s advocacy journalism that we need if we want journalism to survive in the face of unconstitutional actions that changed forever our ability to assure sources that their identities will remain confidential and that they can talk to the press without fear of losing their jobs.

The problem isn’t journalism that advocates – it’s journalism that advocates a sadly limited set of options: vote for this guy or for that guy. We need journalism that helps us understand how we can participate and be effective, whether it’s through an election, a petition, a boycott, a new business model or technology. We need to ask whether our stories are teaching our readers to be helpless, or helping them become effective citizens.

My goal in teaching is to help my students see things from a different perspective, whether or not they end up agreeing with me – I aim to provoke more than persuade and hope I’ve done the former if not the latter. Please keep sending me Niemans.


Long tail audiobooks – a thought experiment

Because I have a long commute, I listen to a lot of audio: public radio, podcasts and audiobooks. Because I work in academe, I have a massive pile of books and papers I need to read: books by friends, books for research projects, classics in the field that I should have read at this point in my life. Unfortunately, there is near zero overlap between the listening I do and the reading I need to do.

For example, right now I’m reading Hirschman’s “Exit, Voice and Loyalty“. I’m listening to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin, and while it’s very enjoyable, it’s not really what I need to be reading right now. What I need is a business, a collective or a method that makes and distributes high quality recordings of books that are too obscure to become audiobooks through normal channels, but popular enough that they have a non-zero audience.

I’ve been thinking about this because I spent part of this month recording the audiobook for Rewire. I am very fortunate that Audible purchased audio rights to the book from my publisher, and even more fortunate that Audible was willing to let me record the book, which has given me some insight into the process and the costs involved.

Rewire will end up being about 11 hours of audio, and it took me roughly 19 hours of studio time to record it. Readers get paid (very modestly, in my case, as I’m a novice reader.) The audio engineer who patiently followed along, prompting me to re-record sentences I screwed up needs to get paid, as do the engineers at Audible who edit out my breaths and other auditory detritus. I’m going to guess that a setup involving a reader, an engineer and a post-processing engineer costs at minimum $300 per hour of finished audio – with a professional reader and more editing, this figure could be much, much higher. (If you work in this space and have a better cost estimate, please share it in the comments.)

If my estimate is right, I could – in theory – hire a team to record Hirschman’s slim volume for $2000 or so, for my exclusive personal use. But that’s not very cost effective: at that price, it’s a better deal for me to hire a driver for one of my commutes between Pittsfield and Cambridge and spend the time reading the book. But there’s surely dozens of others out there interested in reading Hirschman since Malcolm Gladwell lavished praise on him in a recent New Yorker piece. If I can find 99 others, we could – in theory – hear Hirschman for $20 each.

There’s a rub, of course – I don’t have the rights to Hirschman’s work. That might or might not matter if I hired someone to read it to me, but it would certainly matter if I started selling a reading of Hirschman’s book to others. I wonder if this might be a surmountable problem for “long tail” books, which are unlikely to be made into audio books otherwise. If we added a royalty payment for copies sold of the Hirschman audiobook, paid to a publisher, is it possible we could build a model that’s both feasible and legal for organizing adhoc recordings of books?

Here’s how I think it could work. I’d post my request for Hirschman’s book to our site, and ask others to join with me. We’d each commit at least $20 to ensure we got a copy of the recording, and we could commit more if we really, really wanted the book read. If we reached critical mass, say 110 readers, we’d use the money to pay a reader and engineer and provide a royalty to the publisher. If we fell short of the goal within a certain timeline, we’d invoke the punk rock/DIY option – those who had committed to the project would be asked if they wanted to record a chapter of the book and we’d submit and compile our chapters into a lower quality, but serviceable audiobook.

I’m not actually in a position to launch this project – remember, I’m the guy who doesn’t have time to read a 130 page book and needs it read to him. But I’d be very interested to hear if someone’s already doing a business like this, or whether anyone would be interested in starting a business like this. I’m less interested in hearing that I can just use text to speech on my computer and that should be completely satisfactory – it’s not, I’ve tried – or that I should find a way to access books recorded for the blind (IP issues in that industry are very complicated and having sighted people access those works could screw things up for blind readers.) I’m particularly interested in hearing from people in the publishing industry about whether there are presses that would find this a satisfactory solution, or whether any rightminded publisher would stop a project like this in its tracks. Oh, and if you’ve a better name than Long Tail Audiobooks, post that as well…


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